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Lessons from Iron Chef Eric Greenspan and cocktail culture legend Alex Day

Entrepreneurs in hospitality are known to be creative and hardworking—thriving in this industry requires grit, grueling hours, and constant innovation. And while the current business environment has made it even more difficult, one of the bright spots has been seeing how restaurants and bars are innovatively adapting to the restrictive environments they’re forced to operate in. 

Former Iron Chef Eric Greenspan and cocktail culture legend Alex Day of Death & Co are the types to go into creative overdrive while the rest of us might curl up on the couch and watch Netflix. In two recent episodes of the Full Comp podcast, they talk about the creative drive that fuels their endeavors.

Listen to the episodes below, or click through to listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Transcript of episode 3: Death & Co’s Alex Day

Transcript of episode 4: Iron Chef Eric Greenspan

 

Ready for more? Check out more episodes of Full Comp:

Episode 1: Building a Restaurant Empire in a Recession: Tender Greens’ Erik Oberholtzer

Episode 2: Creating Opportunity from Tragedy: Serial Restaurateur Darin Rubell


Full Comp, episode 3 transcript
Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co’s Alex Day

[Josh Kopel]

Today’s episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They’re also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now here we go.

[Alex Day]

To look at who we are, what we value, what are the core components of our aspirations, and really finding and searching for that path to get there. Even now when we’re not making a cent.

[Josh Kopel]

Welcome to Full Comp, the show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators, served up on the house.

[Josh Kopel]

I’m Josh Kopel and on today’s show, we chat with Alex Day, proprietor of the world famous Death & Co, a bar that redefined cocktail culture for an entire generation.

[Josh Kopel]

The Death & Co team has been offering a warm embrace to those who shine after dusk for over a decade now. It’s foundational elements are a love of great people and great drinks. Here, Alex takes us back to the moment he fell in love with cocktail culture.

[Alex Day]

I think I know the exact moment that this industry was for me and that it was going to be where I expressed all these various passions and interests that I had. And it was kind of right at the end of college. I was in New York, I was going to NYU, pretty much had no one I deal with know what the hell I was going to do with my life, and had this degree in European Studies. That’s super useful. I’m thinking I wanted to change the world with the State Department but also working in restaurants, kind of listlessly, not really with a whole ton of interest. 

And I remember my friends and I were running around the West Village and we came across this bar on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Leroy, and it’s this little flatiron building. You popped the door open and inside was jazz coming up the stairs. And we walked down and a couple of my friends had been there before so they knew what they were getting into, but I had no idea. And there was this just “thunk, thunk, thunk” of cocktail shakers. And this entire world that existed. And that bar is one that’s still there today. It’s called Little Branch. And for me, that was the moment where this thing that I had been doing, bartending or working in restaurants either in the back of house or the front of house, I suddenly saw that these people were taking it so seriously but also having a really great time.

They were young, they were kind of other worldly. They were timeless in a way as both individuals on the product and it just really kind of jumped out at me. And I remember it wasn’t even a specific drink, it was the like idea of the drink that they put in front of me and I remember in my sense memory, so specifically, the drink that they sat down was a gin martini and you know that movie Ratatouille where he has the bite of the Ratatouille and he the critic goes back to his childhood and has all these visceral memories?

It was a very similar experience for me having that martini. Not to say I had martinis as a kid, but like my grandpa always had a martini in the afternoon and it was God-awful, but it was something that he did every single afternoon and I was then experiencing it in this new way and I look back at that in the the glossy eyes of hindsight and think of how powerful the moment it was because it brought together history and tradition and personal connection with this new thing that I was learning and discovering. And I saw that really as kind of a tipping point into focusing on the craft of making great drinks and really beyond that, beyond just the liquid in the class, the opportunities that exist and hospitality to connect people to places, to people to memories and all the great benefits that can come with that.

[Josh Kopel]

When did you decide you wanted to be an entrepreneur? When did you realize you were an entrepreneur? And what did that path look like?

[Alex Day]

Yeah. My path to entrepreneurship is by, probably a pretty typical path. There are a lot of people out there who probably say the same things and it generally sums up in dumb luck or something like fumbling along the way and failing forward. And it’s super easy to look back at your childhood and pick out these little markers or indications that maybe you have an entrepreneurial spirit. 

For me it was within music. I was a musician, I play guitar, I had bands, but I also loved production. I loved the assembly of the thing together into a package. And so I got really into music production and I tried to start a little business out of it where I conned my dad into giving me a couple of hundred bucks to get a piece of recording hardware. And I had to build a business plan to justify it because he’s a businessman and forced me to kind of go through that exercise.

And now I had all these justifications, on the other end, the money that I would make and the recoup on investment. And at the time I thought it was just like, “Well this is insane and you’re making me go through this, but this is kind of fun.” And now I’m like, “Wow, damn Dad. Thanks for forcing me to do that.” And also what the hell was I thinking? That I’m starting a business as a 13-year-old wanting to record his friends making terrible music. And it’s that kind of mentality and spirit that I find as kismet in other people that have gone on to open businesses. That there’s always been that moment in their life or those kind of milestones in their childhood or adolescence or early adulthood where they’ve had some sort of gumption to take a risk and to put themselves out there and to see what a path looks like.

And when you’re successful, it’s a great narrative. But there’s so many people who either make that leap but don’t fully commit to it or don’t even make that leap at all. And so I think it wasn’t long after I discovered that hospitality was my thing and that bars and restaurants provided so much of what I wanted to do in my academic career of traveling the world, of teaching, of changing the world and changing people’s opinions and doing better in the world, frankly. And it provided even better opportunities. So the moment I found that out, it wasn’t long, man, before I just buckled down and started asking the question, “Well, how can I do it better? Who is the best out there to learn from? And how can I forge my own path in it?”

It’s funny looking back at that era too, because we’re talking about 2006-ish in New York City when there were amazing restaurants that were really just kind of pushing the culinary scene. But there were also a handful of people doing it in the beverage space and I was lucky enough to be a part of some of those conversations as a super young kid who had no fucking idea what I was doing. And it really speaks to the kind of, I suppose, juvenile place of the industry at that point because I was at the right place at the right time, and I had a bit of grit, I guess you could call it, that I was able to get kind of ahead of the line. It’s so much harder nowadays to get to where I was in those early days and was able to like experiment frantically and kind of test the waters with what entrepreneurship meant.

[Josh Kopel]

How did you meet your partners?

[Alex Day]

So I met Dave Kaplan, who’s my partner and his business partner at the time, Robby de Rossi, who is still our business partner to this day. I met them when they opened Death & Co. So I wasn’t a partner in the beginning. I was working at a handful of places at the time that they opened. A place on the Lower East Side called the Lower East Side Toy Company or the Back Room, which was a speakeasy-style concept where we served drinks in tea cups. I shit you not. But it was also quite fun. But I had done the bug a little bit after my visits to Little Branch and cocktails and was just … I’m obsessive. I just dive in. I need to know everything and at that point, it wasn’t a whole lot of literature out there, so I was gobbling up every book on spirits cocktails that I could, and then being a troll on eGullet and other forums to learn from all these people just simply inventing the industry as they were going.

So I was working at a place called Back Room and the Lower East Side Toy Company. But after I had gotten that kind of first itch and was exploring and learning as much as I could, I somehow got connected to this guy named Eben Freeman. And Eben worked at a place called WD50, which is a wildly famous and influential restaurant from Wylie Dufresne, and he had in his pastry department, this guy, Sam Mason, who really … Wiley was pushing the envelope on savory. Sam was doing some fucking crazy cool stuff in pastry and desserts, and he had a vision for a restaurant that really blended and blurred the lines between those two areas in ways that even WD wasn’t really doing. And he tapped Eben on the shoulder to express those same ideas within the bar program. And so I somehow found a slot on the opening team of a place called Taylor in New York, which was short-lived.

But that was really one of those moments where to me, I was moving beyond the threshold of, ‘I’m just bartending because one, I need to pay bills. I’m done with my degree. My parents aren’t bugging me enough to get a real job. And three, wow, this is like a real job and all these people are incredibly smart, methodical, experienced, have trained all over the world with the most prestigious people in the field.” And so it was a market to me to take it really seriously. And learning from Eben I think was one of the motivators for me to pursue working at Death & Co. When it first opened, I sat at the bar and… I’ve probably retold this story so many damn times and the people that hear it over and over again, it seems scripted but it was true.

I sat there a couple of days after they opened. I had a really good friend named Sonia who I was working for who suggested I go to this bar around the corner from where I live. And I sat down and this bartender, Joaquin Simo, served us and something flipped in my brain, whereas Little Branch, in those early days and I went there, that was so motivating. I loved everything about it. 

But then I was seeing another expression of the same idea. That you could take something super seriously, but you can also be youthful about it. You could be so deeply human. And not to say they weren’t at Little Branch, but there was a different perspective at Death & Co. in those early days. And I hope, to this day, where Joaquin’s personality in serving us was so apparent and the drinks were awesome and the room was rad and it was dark as hell.

And it was great, but it was really Joaquin just guiding us, not just through one drink, but through a whole experience. And I remember it so distinctly, man, leaving that night and thinking, “I need to work at this place.” And so as I do, a little bit obsessive, I launched a bit of a campaign and found my way to getting in with Dave. Dave Kaplan opened the bar when he was super young. A couple months before, or even a couple of weeks before I first stumbled in there. And we started chatting a little bit. And I got him to come down to my bar and then we kind of continued the conversation and it took a couple of months, but I was able to go and patronize Death & Co. a number of times and fell in love with the experience and all the other bartenders, be it Phil Ward, who was the head bartender, came from Pegu Club, Brian Miller, Katie Stipe was behind the bar, Kabel Tomlinson, all these people who were, at that point, already legends in the industry.

And they really inspired me. And so my determination was more steadfast and I got to know Dave as I said, and he brought Phil down to my bar and the story goes that Phil took one look at my menu, put it down and said, “We’re done here.” And Dave was all worried because he had kind of put his chips in the basket of hiring Alex. And Phil just said, “Anyone who can put that menu together, we can’t not let them work for us.” Which was probably because I think I had one of his drinks on there that he secretly created for another bar. So it might’ve been a little bit of flattery in that way or our ego talking. But it was definitely a moment where the stars aligned and I had some validation that I was doing something right and I was doing it all on my own, but I was able to kind of meet these folks and get in with them.

And over the time when we transitioned from being business partners, but kind of doing our own thing a little bit to deciding on a vision and wanting to pursue it.

[Josh Kopel]

And then it was smooth sailing from then on out. Not a problem in the world, right?

[Alex Day]

Oh my God, there’s no such thing as smooth sailing. And anyone tells you otherwise in hospitality is full of shit. I would say today … It’s 2020 right now and though we are in the middle of this crisis and we don’t have operating venues, we have three Death & Co.s and they span between New York, Denver, and Los Angeles, which is our most recent one. And over the years we’ve opened a number of other bars with other partners and done some really, kind of, incredible things when we look back at them. But I would say up until a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, so much of that was grabbing blindly into the dark of not really knowing what we were doing so much as trying to get better at it.

And I would confidently say the first, I don’t know, half decade or more at Death & Co., that was barely a business. It was the bartenders running free rein, myself included, putting whatever we wanted into drinks, like, “What are costs of goods? Who really cares about that?” So long as the place is busy and people are having a good time. And that free license allowed us to create an absolute cannon of original cocktails. But also not necessarily the greatest business structure. So it was bumps along the way of figuring that out. 

Any restaurateur will tell you that you can rely on a number of things, no matter what you do, that you’re going to have to pay your taxes and that you’re going to have a crazy neighbor. And we had ours at Death & Co., New York that made our lives a living hell in those early years. He lived directly above us and had all these false claims, and we were in and out of court a bunch. We almost had to close down. We had limited hours ‘til midnight for years. And it was really, really, really, really tough, honestly. And at that stage, I wasn’t even running the ship. I was just a bartender there. And just knowing what my business partner, Dave went through to navigate that and remain positive out the other side taught me so much about leadership, if I’m honest. What it means to keep a culture together and keep a ship moving even when it looks like doom and gloom, which I can’t think of a more prescient thought in these times.

[Josh Kopel]

What were some of the biggest obstacles and what were some of the biggest lessons learned from those obstacles?

[Alex Day]

I think some of the biggest obstacles were learning the business. And what I mean by that is not… We didn’t know what we were doing when we started all this. And I can’t speak to you Dave and Ravi in those early days of Death & Co., but I was around and aware and was kind of along with them as I came up to speed. 

But many of us who were of this era simply had no idea how to run a business. And it isn’t just about making drinks or having a good accountant or lawyer, it’s about what it means to truly run something that has longevity. And I think that was a huge obstacle for us in those early years of finding frustration in slights of having a not very strong culture where we would find ourselves continually disappointed by people we thought we trusted.

But as we look back on it and seeing maybe failure in their part, it was all our fault that we did not provide the right structure, the right support, the right guidance to allow them to do their jobs. And that was a really big learning lesson and a check on our egos, honestly. And maybe just speaking for myself, very much a huge check on my ego where I believe strongly in individuals and bringing them into positions of authority and seeing them fail and wondering why? And at first, it’s easy to blame them and say these tropes that you see all the time by frankly, bad operators or “It’s just impossible to find good people.” And to this day, I think that’s bullshit. We, as leaders, as owners, as managers, it’s our responsibility to find and cultivate good people. So much of the responsibility can lie on our shoulders. So I think that obstacle of hitting a wall with the people that we worked with and learning that it was as much our responsibility, if not more than the responsibility of the individual, was an incredibly valuable lesson to learn and one that I feel like I preach on a soapbox as often as I can.

[Josh Kopel]

We have an opportunity, because everyone’s closed at this point, to be reflective. And when you look back on your path, the path of your business, the obstacles faced, the high closure rates, the terrible margins, the lack of work-life balance, does it need to be as hard as it is? Is there a strategy moving forward where we could all live a more sustainable life?

[Alex Day]

The thing about a crisis is that they always expose the faults in the system. And yeah, we’re having that conversation on a larger, kind of macroeconomic level right now. But I think that we can answer that question in our own way individually. The system as it’s set up now has so many faults. The way in which hospitality workers are employed and compensated is fucked up. And the way in which many of us in major cities have to bow to certain operating expenses—be it rents that are astronomical—if we want to do this thing we’re passionate about is shocking. 

And I think the sentiment is an important one that we need to look at: What are the hard things, why are they hard, and are we making them harder or can we do something about it? I guess it’s really easy and tempting to look at our national leaders as the only voices to make change in this and to motivate them for larger systemic changes to the sector of the economy that we work in, hospitality. 

But it’s also on our part to look at this as our own faults. The way in which we work and how hard we make this for ourselves and what energy we put into certain things. There are so many of us that obsess over, as an example, the product side of things. It has to be the perfect dish. It has to have all the integrity in the world, the same thing of a cocktail. But we never step back and ask ourselves, “Is this really what my guests want?” And I think this situation is going to force us to not only ask those big, kind-of systemic questions, but also ask questions of ourselves, what our guests want and how we can be nimble out the other side of it. So I think, not to dodge the question too much, but it seems so stratified of a question and an answer is that it applies to literally every part of this.

It is how we as operators navigate this situation. But it’s also the people that influence us, be it landlords, the government, regulations, et cetera, and how the overall pie is cut up. Because you’re right, it’s not a good margin business when you look at it, especially if you’re in the restaurant side of things. Luckily we’re a far more beverage-focused company and our margin is a little bit different than others, but it will require us, even though we had, I would say, a very strong business before this, to look at every single angle of what we do, not only programmatically, environmentally service-wise, how we approach our hospitality model, how we handle our vendors, how we interact with our landlords and what our expectations are with our staff.

[Josh Kopel]

And currently being unemployed and having time to be reflective, are you going to walk out of this with a new perspective? Have there been any aha moments that you said to yourself, “Well, when we get back to work, I’m going to do this differently or that differently?”

[Alex Day]

There’ve been so many aha moments. Being out of work is an interesting way of putting it. I don’t consider myself out of work. I am not operating right now. There are parts of our business that are still incredibly active, and we luckily are able to have our core operations team nationally together still. And those aha moments you talk about are like, “How can we operate better on the other end of it,” is exactly what we are all focused on right now. And it is really fundamentally, not to be too technical about it, but it is honing ourselves so that we can fine-tune the way in which we operate so that we are the most nimble we can possibly be on the other side of this. 

We don’t know what it’s going to be like when each one of our cities opens up. The regulations and restrictions are going to be different. The social norms are going to be different in each one of those. Our relationships with our landlords and our vendors is going to be different in each one of those. And frankly, the local cultures may want different things. So if we are so fine-tuned on the things that we thought we were good at before but we knew that we had improvement on. On the other end of it, we can be even stronger and more prepared to hit the ground running, I guess you could say, from an operational standpoint, even if we’re not super busy from the start. It’s like being prepared for a test is how I feel about it. One of those tests that you had in college that wasn’t necessarily multiple choice but that you had to use your brain and engage in and that’s exactly the kind of preparation that I feel that we’re doing right now and making adjustments to. That also exists within the cultural side of things.

What do we want on the other end of this, and these are the big questions we’re asking ourselves right now. We ideally want to be an employer that does certain things. We have attempted over the last couple of years to put in certain benefits to attract the best people that we can. We have a kind of aspirational product, and we need talented folks. So all full-time employees have health insurance. We have wellness credits for people. I’m proud of where we’ve gotten, but it’s nowhere near where we want to be. So we’re asking ourselves right now, “Can we rebuild our business model to make the business that we want to be out the other end? That we have an opportunity even for part-time people to have health insurance in the current system?” Maybe we’re going to see a systematic change out the other end of this. I’m hoping.

Can we offer growth opportunities for people inside and outside of our company in a very streamlined and focused way? Developing the roadmaps for people. As an example, “I’m a barback, and I really want to be a general manager of this place.” Here is your trajectory, and it’s clear and understandable. So those are kind of the big questions we’re asking ourselves to look at who we are, what we value, what are the core components of our aspirations and searching for that path to get there. Even now when we’re not making a cent of money.

[Josh Kopel]

There are thousands of bars in the US, but Death & Co. is prolific. And I guess my question is, what was the roadmap that took you guys from being a great bar, doing great work to a prolific brand? Can you walk me through that brand strategy and that path that took you from great guys doing a great job to this national brand that everyone knows about and has a book?

[Alex Day]

It is an idea. It is an approach to something. That you can be meticulous and focused on ingredients. You can be maniacal about your love of something. But you can also be human about it. And you can be personal and you can be genuine in it. And that philosophical starting point is where we’ve gone in every aspect of our outward voice. It is physically manifested in our Denver and LA properties. While where there is a thread of continuity with the aesthetic, if you will. Those little markers and nods to the other places but they’re not carbon copies of one another. And not knocking anyone doing that—I totally understand the facsimile model—but that’s just not us.

We want to have a unique menu and unique kind of draw for people to come to each one of our places and explore it, and we were so focused—especially Dave on the kind of aesthetic brand level—so focused on making sure that when you picked up that book on a visceral, on the subconscious level, that you got some part of the experience of walking up to the door at Death & Co. in New York, touching this ridiculously robust brass handle and lifting this massive door open and going into this dark bar.

The book is attempting to do that as well. It’s this beautiful fabric cloth cover, black book. You open it, it has a weight to it, it has significance, it has gravity. And then the book itself, through narrative, through photo, through illustration, brings you into our aesthetic in what we saw as a necessary and very purposeful kind of trajectory. And when we saw the success of that and the impact that it had on people… when we saw that, we saw an opportunity to bring that voice even louder. And it’s easy to roll your eyes at social media, but social media is just a giant and powerful marketing engine. And as we started kind of growing the Death & Co. feed or seeing a good response, we started looking at what we were doing, what others were doing and realizing that it was a lot of kind of bragging or just kind of throwing out the day-to-day interactions of the bar.

And that’s not what we’re about. We’re about teaching people, helping them, growing their skills, growing their engagement. And it was honestly an aha moment for us. And I should throw all the credit to my partner, Dave, here because he really saw the opportunity before anyone else and had that light bulb moment. And he saw the opportunity to make social media as a way to really engage our community to push it forward. Because we’re not just posting pretty pictures of cocktails, we’re sharing our knowledge, be it recipes or how we work. And through this crisis I’m really, really proud of what we’ve done by not just using our feed to generate money for ourselves, but bring in experts from say, legal counsel in New York to do what we call “Ask Me Anythings’ on our stories where people get to ask advice of these people.

We’ve had a wellness expert recently talking about kind of just mental health in this crisis for bartenders. So trying to engage a lot of people. And I’m hopeful these steps that we’ve made to be beyond those four walls of Death & Co. are the reason it’s become a brand that is respected globally, even if people haven’t set foot in our doors.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s beautiful. You have the opportunity to speak to the entire industry in this moment. Is there anything you’d like to say?

[Alex Day]

I would say two things. First, look after yourself. This is almost cliche at this point, but for those of you who are bartenders, this is a scary time and many of you, because I was there once as well, lived a life that had a certain pace to it. It was extremely social. It involved drinking or other things. It involves sometimes hazardous experiences, but it’s important right now when you’re lacking that connection to other people that it doesn’t allow you to spiral. And I would say from an owner perspective or manager or leader perspective in the same conversation, it’s finding a way to keep momentum for yourselves.

As leaders, we thrive on the chaos, the problem solving, the opportunities that come with a night of service. And when we are lacking those, it becomes very hard to understand ourselves and who we are as people. I think that that one other advice that I would give kind of outside of the wellness side of things—for leaders out there—is to keep a connection with your team. I think that the people who are going to come out ahead of this situation are the ones that maintain their relationship with the people who truly are the gears of the thing, of the machine.

And if you can even in some way, lend support to them. Dedicate half of your week or a quarter of your week or a couple of hours a week to checking in on people, asking if they need anything. You may not be able to give financial help right now. You may not be able to give them any answers because none of us have any answers right now, but you can give them an ear, you can give them some guidance if they’re dealing with some really challenging times. So I hope that people really see this as an opportunity to find greater value in their people than maybe they did before.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s Alex Day, proprietor of Death & Co. If you’d like to check out Alex’s most recent projects, go to proprietorsllc.com.

If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content, or read our weekly blog, go to JoshKopel.com. That’s J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L-dot-com. 

Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, please leave us a review. And special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel. You’ve been listening to Full Comp.


Full Comp podcast: Episode 4 transcript
The Art of the Pivot: Iron Chef Eric Greenspan

[Josh Kopel]

Today’s episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They’re also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now here, we, go.

[Eric Greenspan]

There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel no matter how dark it appears, and it’s just, that’s how you have to deal with the person. You’ve got to just dust yourself off, and pay attention to the signals, and be open to receive them, and pivot quickly to take advantage.

[Josh Kopel]

Welcome to Full Comp, a show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry, featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators, served up, on the house.

I am Joshua Kopel and on today’s show, we chat with chef Eric Greenspan, who shares his greatest successes, worst defeats, and the lessons learned from each. Chef Eric Greenspan is probably best known for his appearances on big TV shows like Iron Chef America. What most folks don’t know is the resilience required for Eric to carve out a place for himself within this industry. Here, he shares one of the largest obstacles to cross his path.

[Eric Greenspan]

My entire career has been highlighted by obstacles, both of my own doing and obstacles of just the world turning in a way that you weren’t expecting it to. And what’s been important for me hasn’t been as much the obstacle, but the response. How does one shift their lives in order to overcome obstacles when life throws them your way, especially the unexpected ones? 

Like for example, the first one, I was a line cook in New York City for about four years. I worked at Union Pacific for Rocco DiSpirito, and for David Bouley at Bouley Bakery, for Paul Leibrandt for a short period of time, I was his sous chef. And in 2000, 2001, I was a line cook for Alain Ducasse. So I helped Alain Ducasse open up at the Essex House, the first one of these fine-dining, three-star Michelin, French chef experiences in America. And it was an absolute honor to be a part of it. And we can talk about that some other time.

But in the middle of that, about a year into that experience, was when 9/11 happened. In fact, I remember taking the subway into work. I didn’t know what to do. I watched the buildings go down, and I’m like, “I got to go to work,” and I just figured like this is bad, but I don’t know what effect this is going to have on work. So I’m just going to go in. I remember showing up to work and being the only guy there. And I just put away all the fish and put away all the meat and put away all the vegetables—nobody showed up. So I left. And I remember riding the subway back from the Essex House to my apartment uptown, and there were literally shell-shocked people covered in ash on the subway. And I’ll never forget that image of just, some of us just kind of in normal clothes, a little bit confused, and some of us who were leaving the subway, having just been deeply in what was happening.

And the next day, I got a call from my chef. No, I don’t think it was a call. Actually, we went in, I went into work the next day, and everybody was there. And the chef, the French chef, made an announcement that said, “Look, we want to continue operations. We want to keep this restaurant going, but in light of this tragedy, and what we think it’s going to do for business, we can no longer pay the staff to work here. So you can work here, and we’d appreciate it if you worked here, but we can’t pay you.” And that was heartbreaking, and frankly, super insensitive, you know what I mean? Like I considered myself a New Yorker at that time, I’d been in town for four years. And to be told that you can work but not get paid at this fine dining restaurant, in the middle of a national tragedy, was shocking.

And so I quit. As much as I loved working there, as much as the knowledge was amazing and the experience, to me, that inappropriate sense of telling people that they can work for free while they’re processing through this. I mean, not to mention the fact, we had lost a friend too. One of the guys who was a line cook with us at Ducasse, had gone on to be a sommelier assistant at Windows on the World, in the World Trade Center.

[Josh Kopel]

Wow.

[Eric Greenspan]

And was covering somebody’s shift for lunch that day, and went down with the buildings. And so like in the midst of all of that loss and all of that shock to be told that we can’t pay you anymore, was a kind of a kick in the gut. I didn’t want to leave New York though. And so, it was time for a pivot. And so I started applying for jobs and I found a gig, Joe Citarella was opening up a restaurant called Citarella’s. He got a high-end grocery store chain in New York City, and they opened up a brick and mortar restaurant at Rockefeller Center. And I remember walking into the kitchen and talking to the chef and I said, “I see you’re looking for two line cooks, I’ll take one and a half pay and I’ll do both their jobs,” because it was important to me to stay in New York City. It was important to me to not let this tragedy change my love for the City and my support for the City, and the value. And so that’s what we did.

[Josh Kopel]

That opportunity lasted how long?

[Eric Greenspan]

I was there for about three or four months, was doing both jobs, and was excelling at it. But I realized, you know what, I’m not learning anything. And at the end of the day, the reason why I was in New York was to learn. And whereas I wanted to stay, to be supportive of the City and to not let terrorism chase me away, I also needed to kind of further my career and just doing the two line cooks job. While it was satisfying to be like, “Fuck yeah, I can do this,” and continue to stay, it was stagnating my career. And so I got the opportunity at that time, Walter Manzke, who owns Republique now, and Petty Cash, and about to open up Bicyclette and stuff like that, Walter Manzke was my chef. I did a three-month stint at Patina when they first reopened, as a line cook, before I moved back to New York to do the stint at Ducasse.

[Eric Greenspan]

And so Walter Manzke called me and said he was going back to becoming the chef at Patina, and he wanted me to be his sous chef. And so I moved back to Los Angeles. Bittersweet, sad to leave New York under the circumstances, but excited to move the career along. And so I became the sous chef at Patina and then Walter, who had just taken the job back, four months later left, and Joachim offered me the executive chef job. So I was 27-years-old, and all of a sudden, I was the executive chef at what, at the time, was considered the best restaurant in Los Angeles.

[Josh Kopel]

Amazing.

[Eric Greenspan]

So yeah, it’s interesting how I went from working at the best restaurants in New York, is what I considered Ducasse at the time, and through this tragedy, through a various sense of different pivots, six, eight months later, I found myself with the job of a lifetime, as the executive chef and on a huge stage, the executive chef of Patina, and on a huge stage and ready to kind of build my own team and to create my own voice and to kind of start me on this career as an executive chef in the Los Angeles food scene.

[Josh Kopel]

What an amazing opportunity. What an amazing turnaround.

[Eric Greenspan]

There’s something around the corner.

[Josh Kopel]

Have you always had that perspective?

[Eric Greenspan]

There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark it appears, and to just, like that’s how you have to deal with adversity. You’ve got to just dust yourself off and pay attention to the signals and be open to receive them, and pivot quickly to take advantage.

[Josh Kopel]

And so you’re at Patina. How’s it going?

[Eric Greenspan]

I mean, crazy. I had only been the sous chef for four months. That was my first sous chef job. So to be offered the executive chef job, on a stage like that, was insane. Totally ill prepared for that. But I had been ill prepared my whole life. I was a dishwasher and became the head cook at a breakfast joint while I was in college within three weeks. At Union Pacific, I became the chef de partie garde-manger in like a month period of time. From Ducasse, I moved up from veg to cook, when I was line cook at Bouley, I remember Brian Bistrong, my chef, literally turning to my buddy Doug Psaltis, who was the protein cook, and I moved up to veg station from garde-manger. He literally said to Doug, “Doug, take it easy on Eric, he’s totally not ready for this job, but I think he can do it.”

[Josh Kopel]

That’s incredible.

[Eric Greenspan]

That’s kind of been the story of my life, has always been like, “All right, well here’s an opportunity that I’m not ready for it. Let’s go.” You don’t pass on the opportunity. You don’t ever go like, “I’m not ready for this. I think I’m just going to not do it.” You got to be like, “Fuck it, let’s go.”

[Josh Kopel]

I love that. So you’re at Patina, things are going incredibly well. The restaurant’s doing very well. How do you feel about it?

[Eric Greenspan]

It’s been going well. The restaurant’s doing okay. We’re doing good numbers. It’s funny, our food costs was out of whack because I told them, I was the third executive chef in nine months there. And so I was like, we’re considered the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles. We definitely weren’t. And I’m like, “You know what? I’m just going to cook the food I want to cook.” And I costed it out and said, like, “Look, this is what we need to charge.” And they said, “No, we need to charge less than that.” And I said, “I’d rather cook the best food I can since we’re considered the most expensive food in town, and just cost it appropriately.” And I had a fight with corporate all the time. And instead of lowering my food expectations, I would just send them a spreadsheet every month that said, “Here’s why our food cost is out of whack and if you want to change the price, then you can, but I’m not going to change the food.”

So they were going to open up another restaurant at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and they decided that instead, they would move Patina there. That was going to be a different restaurant. That was going to be pre-theater, that was going to be a little bit less sophisticated than what I was doing at Patina. And mind you, we had just gotten reviewed by Wine Spectator at the time. Zagat put us in the top three, Zagat was a thing at the time. Wine Spectator‘s reviews was the thing at the time, and I think that the quote was, “I’ve never had a better meal in Los Angeles than the near perfect one I had cooked by Eric Greenspan at the time.” And Joachim had threatened me. He was like, “If you don’t get top five, I’d start getting your resume together.” And then we got number one, and I didn’t hear from him for like a week and a half.

But when they decided to move to the concert hall, we mutually decided that that was not a restaurant that I was going to be a part of. And so, that was another change, that was another pivot. And I consulted for a while and moved around, and then Tim Goodell made me an offer to be, what I thought, was a partner in a restaurant called Meson G, at the old Citrus restaurant space. And again, we opened that restaurant, rave reviews, but all of the reviews were like, Tim Goodell was so smart to let Eric Greenspan take over the kitchen. And we’re getting four-star reviews, and every review is saying that. And I’m reading it like, “Stop, stop, stop, stop, fuck man, you’re going to get me fired.” Like this guy’s a chef, he doesn’t want to hear that. And alas, that lasted about four months. And I found myself in another kind of career pivot. I was killing it. The restaurant was filled, the reviews were great. And yet because of ego, I lost my job again. And not my ego, the partners’ egos. And at that point I swore, “You know what? I’m never working for somebody else ever again.”

[Josh Kopel]

How old were you and what year was this?

[Eric Greenspan]

I don’t even remember, man. I think that was 2004, so I was 29, maybe 30, I was 29. And so I was like, “I’m never going to work for somebody else again.” I didn’t look for a chef job, and so I pivoted and I took a job at a culinary school. And I literally taught culinary school for two years while I looked for spaces and I looked for investors. In fact I found one of my investors, one of my students, at the culinary school.

[Josh Kopel]

Wow. Did you enjoy teaching?

[Eric Greenspan]

I loved it. And I think that’s another really important part, kind of along the string of like how to adapt to challenges. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to work at a restaurant for anybody else ever again. And so I needed to find something else to pay my bills and to do. And for me, I was like, you know what, I’ve always viewed my job as a chef. I always say the most important thing as a chef is to be a teacher. It’s not to be a good cook, it’s not to be creative, it’s not to be good at the dining room; it’s to be a leader and to be a teacher. Because if you can teach your staff how to do what you need them to do, you can push them harder than you’ve ever pushed them, and that’s where excellence occurs. And so I figured, wow, makes a lot of sense, let’s teach at a culinary school, let’s hone those skills, and let’s shape those skills, because I wasn’t going to take another cook job. I wasn’t going to take another chef job for somebody else. And so I didn’t know what else to do. And I loved it, man.

[Josh Kopel]

And so now it’s 2006, and you go out on your own again.

[Eric Greenspan]

You’re good at math.

[Josh Kopel]

I know.

[Eric Greenspan]

Wow. You did that in your head. 2006, 2007, I found a space that I wanted to open up a restaurant. I had been in and out of a couple of different partnerships—looking through spaces, front-of-the-house guys were going to be my partners who couldn’t hold on for as long as we had to hold on. We spent thousands of dollars negotiating out spaces and falling through on things. 

I finally found a space that I thought was going to work. But they would only sign, like I only had 30 days to close the deal and 30 days wasn’t going to be enough to extend the lease. But again, I knew I had 30 days and I needed to extend the lease, and I didn’t have any money. And I remember asking my grandparents, God rest their soul. But at the time they were alive, and I said, “I don’t expect much of an inheritance from you, if you’re going to give me an inheritance, now’s the time because I need some money to keep this place in escrow, while I raise the money.

That was the thing, I had 30 days of escrow and I needed at least 60 days to raise the money. But I wasn’t going to waiver. And so my grandparents gave me five grand, my uncle invested 15, and I needed five more because I had told the real estate broker, I said, “I need to extend it 30 days,” and he said, “I need you to put 25 grand then into the escrow because I need proof that you actually have-“

Actually wait a minute. Before that, when I told them I wanted to go into escrow on the space, he said, “Write me a check for 500 bucks.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “If you’re willing to write me a check for 500 bucks right now, I know that you’re serious.” And I said, “But why would a serious person just give you a check for 500 bucks?” And the guy’s like, “That’s what you need to do.” So I remember having to write that check and it was like almost the last 500 bucks that I had. I mean, I was a teacher at the time, I did not have that much money, but I wrote it. Fast forward, I knew that I needed to give this guy another 25 grand to keep the place in escrow while I finalized my raise. And so my uncle gave me 15, and my grandparents gave me my inheritance of five, and I had 5,000 left that I needed to raise, and there was two days left.

And I had a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere. I put it on eBay and I called all my friends around the country and was like, “I need you guys to bid up from around the country, so it doesn’t look like we’re colluding on this, because I need five grand. And all my friends were bidding up on this ’67 Belvedere. And some dude in St. Louis wound up bidding 5,200 bucks to buy the ’67 Plymouth Belvedere. Boom, we stayed in escrow. 

We opened to rave reviews. We are the runner up next to Mozza and Fresh. I think it was the runner up next to Mozza. No, Mozza was a runner up with us for best new restaurant, LA Magazine. Fresh, Jason Travi’s restaurant, was number one. Rave reviews. People were writing on blogs and stuff that like a seat on the back patio at The Foundry on Melrose meant that you had arrived in Hollywood. We were packed beyond belief. We were killing it. And I was like, “Dude, you made it.” I was 31 at a time. And I was like, “Dude, you made it.” And then came the writers’ strike. And so, I was in Hollywood. We had a big Hollywood clientele. I had meetings every day for all of the agencies and for the writers and the directors and all those people. And the next thing you know, the bottom just fell out, production stopped. I mean this time the pivot was, stay alive no matter what. And so I basically turned into the P.T. Barnum of the restaurant. I was doing grilled cheese nights and gordita nights and bluesy Tuesday in the front lounge with bands, and we did crawfish boils on the back patio, and we did like DJed brunches. We literally did every sort of promotion we possibly could.

I stopped ordering from vendors and I would just take whatever cash I had in the register and drive to Restaurant Depot and that’s where I did all of my shopping. And I’ll tell you, you really learn about what kind of chef, like any chef can order high-end ingredients and farmer’s market stuff and figure out how to make great menus. When you can charge $65 for a tasting menu that you built off of Restaurant Depot products, then you’re a fucking god. My staff believed in me. I worked tirelessly every day, I did not take a day off. So nobody thought that I was slacking, and I wouldn’t do what I was asking them to do. And my staff sometimes was behind. By the time we wound up closing the Foundry—and the story doesn’t end well—but by the time we ended up closing the Foundry, but it was seven years in, we survived. Seven years through the recession. And then the challenges that the recession threw our way financially. I was six weeks behind on wages and tips for my staff. And they still all showed up on the last day of work because they knew that I was going to make it happen for them.

[Josh Kopel]

What year is it now?

[Eric Greenspan]

So it was 2014, and again, another pivot. We just realized that the Foundry was too strapped in debt, it wasn’t going to make it. We had tried to raise money, we were building Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese next door. And we had tried to get that open before we had the close the Foundry, as sort of to give it a little shot. 

I had just won Iron Chef and had done the next Iron Chef, and my TV career was starting to take off. And I sat there and I was like, maybe TV will rescue this restaurant, and it didn’t. Businesses don’t succeed because you’re famous, businesses succeed because they’re run right, and they’re in the right place, and they’re well funded.

And we had one of those three. So I had to figure out what I was going to do, I was trying to raise money for the Foundry and nobody was going to invest. Let’s split this restaurant, let’s rent out the bar to a bar group, and let’s keep just the kitchen and the back patio, and lower our rent and operate that way. So we raised the money on that premise and that, with a couple of other pitfalls in the middle, because I don’t want to just sound like a sob story this entire conversation, that’s how we got Maré open. And part of my raise was to pay off my staff from Foundry. So I set it up where it’s like part of it was like a licensing, I owned the IP to the brand and the company paid me an upfront licensing and consulting fee, and that’s what I use to pay off my vendors and my staff, their tips and the money that I owed in back pay. And then we got Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese and Maré open on that. We opened it with 40 grand from one of our partners, and boom, got it open, and that was Maré. And from that we opened up six or seven restaurants in a year and a half, off of the Maré thing. Another pivot.

[Josh Kopel]

How did it feel? That’s a big growth in a short period of time.

[Eric Greenspan]

It felt like shit, I hated it. I loved what we were doing there, but my partner is like, “Look, there’s three of us and we need to eat so we need to open up more restaurants.” And I was like, “Okay.” But I wasn’t sure, like I’m somebody who really likes to get his hands on things, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy owning a restaurant group. And so I was like, “I’m not going to wait 10 years to find out.” I’m like, “Let’s open up a lot of them really quick and just see if we like this or not.” I didn’t like it. I was proud of what we did. 

Look, we had Fleishik’s. Fleishik’s was like a kosher Jewish deli. We had Erven, we had Maré Silver Lake, Maré Santa Monica, Maré Melrose. We had The Roof on Wilshire, and we had Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese. I hated the fact that I was in my car more than I was in a kitchen, and it wasn’t why I went into cooking. I realized that that’s kind of how you need to make money in the restaurant business, that you need to have these multiple restaurants, but I didn’t enjoy it. And I’m glad that I learned that, in a period of a year, year-and-a-half, rather than taking it 10 years and being 50 and be like, “Whoa, I hate this.”

[Josh Kopel]

Right. Well, and that’s what inspired the biggest pivot, right, to the cloud?

[Eric Greenspan]

Look, I loved the idea of doing multiple brands. Obviously, the dust hadn’t even settled, so it wasn’t like I was going to raise money to open up another restaurant. I had heard of this business called Cloud Kitchens, and mind you, this was before Travis Kalanick even got involved with Cloud Kitchens, the founder of Uber. They were just this one unit and it was a small, like 700-square-foot kitchen. And I teamed up with a guy who was a big customer of mine, in all of my restaurants, who always wanted to invest but would not invest if my partners were involved, just wanted to work with me directly. And we pivoted, and we rented this little tiny space, and we launched what started off as a restaurant called Chino. We pivoted into delivery only.

And there was a lot of reasons why I wanted to do delivery-only restaurants. Number one, I knew that I could cook great food, and put it in a box, and I didn’t want to have to deal with front of the house or partners who had to deal with anything else. I knew that I could do the entirety of the business myself. I needed some branding expertise, so I teamed up with a company called Made By Super, because I knew we were going to have to develop a ton of different brands over the course of the year. And so we gave partnership to a company called Made By Super, so that we were constantly developing new logos and websites and social media assets and stuff like that.

But why not create this delivery-only concept incubator, where I could constantly develop new concepts and lay them on top of each other? But because I hated having to be in a car all the time, this was great because all of the concepts would be coming out of the same kitchen, with the same team. So I can innovate and make changes on all of my restaurants and all of my concepts.

[Josh Kopel]

And respond in real time to whatever the market demands were.

[Eric Greenspan]

And could respond to real time, whatever the market’s demands were. We were changing the menus weekly. We pivoted from nighttime business at Chino to daytime because I didn’t have a chef and I didn’t want to run two breakfast concepts and a night concept yet. So until I could build the business out, we made that pivot. Constantly pivoting, constantly changing, constantly developing.

And at the end, what we had, was the Alt/Grub/Faction. We had, not only do we have four brands, we had Chino, home of the orange chicken burrito, we had 2 on a Roll, which was a New York City bodega-style deli. We had Brekkie burritos, which was Southern California-style breakfast with like yogurt bowls and French toasts and chilaquiles and breakfast burritos, obviously. And we had Bubu’s Birds and Burgers, but then we also have the Alt/Grub/Faction, which is like a delivery food court. So it’s all of the brands in one order. So you can order a Brekkie burrito and somebody else could order a rice bowl, your wife can order a rice bowl from Chino. And your kids can have an egg sandwich from Brekkie and chicken tenders from Bubu’s, and it can all come in one delivery with one delivery charge. Because there was something that we could do, I could stay at home and not have to work every day, and if I needed to, I could order food for delivery to my house and do quality control.

[Josh Kopel]

Right.

[Eric Greenspan]

And so I didn’t have to work all of the time. And when I did, I could have a significant impact on all of the brands. It was an amazing pivot. And now, we’re kind of an industry leader. Look, the National Restaurant News just named me, I’m the only chef on the power list, for the most influential people in the food business for 2020, because of the prevalence of delivery. Now, with what’s happening with COVID now, now we’re in a position to really respond because I have concepts designed to come out of one kitchen to really maximize my delivery rep.

[Josh Kopel]

Are you guys killing it right now?

[Eric Greenspan]

It’s interesting, I shut it down. And I didn’t think that there was any way to kind of control the safety of my staff, and therefore the safety of my customers working in a big facility like that. So we’re in the process right now of doing all of the things that we couldn’t do in the Cloud Kitchens environment, in an independent environment, so that I can keep my guys working and give them jobs. We can take advantage and serve the community because we’ve got the right product to be able to serve people out of, and we can save our business and keep it moving forward, but do it in a safe way.

[Josh Kopel]

When do you think that’s going to open?

[Eric Greenspan]

I’ve got a couple other brands that I think I want to launch under the radar to kind of get a sense of the market before I roll out the Alt/Grub brands. I think this place has the capacity to do probably 12 different brands and I want to use it for R&D as well. But hopefully soon, hopefully within the next couple weeks. Like if I couldn’t keep my cooks six feet apart from each other, then I wouldn’t do it, but I can.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s incredibly exciting.

[Eric Greenspan]

Throughout my entire career, opportunity, experiences out of my control have thrown a wrench in my system and we’ve had to make pivots, and I think we’ve made the appropriate pivots every time. But in this one, it feels different because I think that we can continue to be an industry leader in how to work safely and how to do delivery properly, at a time when delivery is what is keeping the entire industry together.

[Josh Kopel]

Well, and continuing that thought, this is a platform where you get the opportunity to talk to an entire industry. Is there anything you’d like to say to the restaurateurs listening today?

[Eric Greenspan]

Stay hopeful. I would say for people who are expecting to do brick and mortar restaurants, I would close. If you can’t keep your staff safe and you can’t make ends meet off the delivery, first of all be careful about like, try to do direct-to-consumer delivery because those margins, when the third parties take their chunk, are significant. I’ve adapted my business model to absorb those costs. But right now, with margins being as thin as they are, I’m worried about restaurateurs getting those first checks and realizing how much shorter they are than what they were expecting and panicking. And so you want to set up a direct-to-consumer ordering platform like, ChowNow, for you, so that you can keep as much of your margins as possible. It’s going to be a marketing struggle but like reach out to your local guests on your mailing lists and the people who support you, and I think that that’s the best way for them to support you.

[Eric Greenspan]

I feel like if you work out a deal with your landlord, to take your rent, to stop paying rent, and add it to the end of your lease term, when you can get reopened and buy yourself a couple of months and find a group of, I see a lot of these fund me pages for people who are trying to pay their staff. And I think people should do a fund me page for like 20 grand, and shut down your restaurant and hold that 20 grand to get it reopened. Because the reality of it is, if you can reopen and restock the shelves and bring your staff back in, you can reopen for that amount of money, and get back in the game.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s great advice chef. Where can people find you on social?

[Eric Greenspan]

@chefgreeny. I mainly do Instagram, mainly do Instagram stories, but nowadays sitting at home. I’m doing all that shit, I might even get into TikTok.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s chef Eric Greenspan. You could check out Eric’s recent projects, including his latest cookbook at chefericgreenspan.com. If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content, or read our weekly blog, go to JoshKopel.com. That’s J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L-dot-com. 

Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel. You’ve been listening to Full Comp.